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Inability to sleep increases suicide risk for baby boomers

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With the recent death of Robin Williams, suicide has been brought back to the forefront of American minds. A new study found that sleeping difficulties could be related to an increase risk of suicide in older adults.

In this study, published in JAMA Psychiatry, Stanford University School of Medicine researchers found that over the course of 10 years, people with poor sleep quality had a 1.2 times greater risk for death by suicide.

Approximately 12 out of every 100,000 people die from suicide each year.

Over the course of the 10 year observation, 20 patients of the almost 15,000 observed committed suicide. The data from the 20 patients were analyzed with 400 other patients of comparable demographics. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, sleep complaints are one of the top 10 warning signs for suicide.

Researchers used the Sleep Quality Index to gather data, and they found that difficulty falling asleep and non-restorative sleep are two complaints associated with higher suicide risk in older adults - even with no other signs of depression.

"The majority of individuals who die by suicide visit their doctor in the months preceding and these are missed opportunities to enhance detection and intervene," said Rebecca Bernert, lead author of the study.

Experts have a few theories concerning the link between sleep deprivation and suicide. One of these theories is the involvement of sleep deprivation in mood regulation. 

"Sleep disturbances fail to provide an emotional respite to distressed individuals and make it more difficult to regulate emotion, thereby lowering the threshold for suicidal behaviors," Bernert said.  

She said when people sleep poorly, it can impact how they feel and the way they manage their emotions. Previous research has shown that poor sleep can result in more negative emotions, impaired judgment and difficulty managing fear or anger.

Researchers used two questionnaires in the study: one concerning sleep quality and one concerning depressive symptoms. The adults were reassessed six times over the 10-year period.

This study is unique in its large size and the length of time researchers spent observing the participants.

Bernert and her colleagues are now investigating the link between poor sleep and suicide and why the link might exist. 

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